SOUTH JORDAN -- Was it a police cover-up or was a police officer justified in killing a man? A Utah family has filed a $1 million lawsuit against the agencies involved to get the truth. They believe the departments intentionally ignored key evidence after a South Jordan officer shot and killed one of their family members.
Forty-one-year old Wade Pennington was killed in May of 2009 after being involved in a chase with South Jordan police officers. Based on dashcam videos of the chase and shooting, the Salt Lake County District Attorney's Office and the West Jordan police department, who investigated the shooting, cleared the South Jordan officer who fired his gun.
But the family says, look and listen to the videos, and see if what the investigation says happened matches what's on tape.
On the night Wade Pennington died, you don't actually see him being shot, but you can hear it--two shots, fired from South Jordan police officer Jared Nichols.
Wade's brother, Dennis Pennington, says, "This stinks from start to the finish. There is no reason this should have ever happened."
Dennis is Wade's older brother, who showed us the dashcam videos.
He says, "A picture is worth a thousand words. Fortunately, we as a family have the video."
It starts when South Jordan Sgt. Allen Crist notices an SUV near businesses where burglaries have been happening. Crist goes after the vehicle, but the driver takes off, goes over a curb and gets away.
A short time later, officers Brett Perez and Nichols find the SUV. Wade Pennington is driving it; it's his girlfriend's SUV. Pennington had an extensive criminal history, but officers say they didn't know it was him.
Perez waves Nichols into a cul-de-sac where he thinks the driver will be cornered, but Pennington gets away, going right past Perez.
In later statements to an investigator, Perez says, "He almost hit me."
Nichols said he heard that on the radio, and goes after the SUV, thinking an attempted assault on an officer has happened.
"Speeds are coming up on 80 miles an hour," Nichols says.
The chase goes through red lights, over a fire hydrant and into another cul-de-sac, where Pennington again gets away.
In the original press release from West Jordan, it says Pennington "rammed two separate police vehicles." Later, Nichols tries to pit maneuver Pennington, but it doesn't work and says this on the radio: "He just tried to take me out again."
Pennington goes into another cul-de-sac where Nichols hits him, causing him to smash into a house. Perez also hits him, giving Nichols another chance to stop him, which he did.
That's when Perez gets out of his car and points his gun at Pennington, yelling at him to give up.
Officer Nichols then shoots him, three seconds after getting the SUV to stop.
Nichols can be heard shouting, "Freeze or I'll shoot you. Freeze! *Bang*Bang* Freeze. Wade, I'm going to shoot you, get down on the [expletive] ground."
What Perez says next to Pennington still haunts the family: "You're dead, [expletive] !"
"How could you, with any type of conscience, yell at somebody like that?" Dennis Pennington asks.
Other officers arrive within minutes.
Nichols can be heard saying, "I don't know man, there goes my job."
As officers talk about it, Perez motions to his dashcam, which is still recording and Nichols says, "Oh no."
Perez responds, "Sorry man."
Family questions police action
Watching the video, Dennis Pennington just wishes his little brother had stopped.
"Should have he stopped? Absolutely. Absolutely he should have stopped," he says.
At the time of his death, Pennington had a "plea in abeyance" deal with the courts on 22 charges of burglary, theft, and criminal mischief, meaning, he would avoid jail time if he stayed out of trouble. He also had to complete a drug court program, which he didn't do.
A month before his death, the courts found him in violation of the deal and set a sentencing date.
"I'm not going to sit here and say Wade was a model citizen. That is not my intent. But Wade has paid his debt to society for the crimes he has committed in the past," Dennis Pennington says.
Now, the family wonders if the South Jordan police officers were out to get him. It turns out, when Nichols shot him, he did it while sitting in his patrol car through a closed window.
Nichols admitted so during the investigation, saying: "Yeah, it was rolled up. I thought it was rolled down. It was, it was rolled up. Because I remember the glass, when I was shooting, going all over the place."
It has the family wondering how Pennington could have heard Nichols yelling at him to freeze.
"You got a siren blasting like that and your engine is revving that loud, how is he supposed to hear you?" Dennis Pennington asks.
Nichols told investigators that after he stopped the SUV, "He [Pennington] made a lunge towards me, And I shot two rounds and he automatically went over."
Pennington was not armed.
West Jordan and the Salt Lake County District Attorney's Office found Nichols was justified in using deadly force because he feared for his life. South Jordan police put him back on the job.
Lt. Dan Starks, with the South Jordan Police Department, said, "The city did our own internal investigation, and we found that the officers were cleared that night. Obviously the policies and procedures were closely looked at, not only city policy, but police policy as well. They've been cleared. No wrong doing."
This case should make its way into court in the next couple of months. The family says their case is not about money, it's about getting the truth out and maybe changing the way investigations are handled by perhaps having ordinary citizens on a panel.
An attorney representing the District Attorney's office filed a motion saying they should be left out of the lawsuit, because they had nothing to do with the shooting. West Jordan said it won't comment on current litigation.
Officer Perez left the department in November of 2009. Officer Nichols is still on the job.